My motto, one I have tattooed on my right arm, is “LIVE LIFE ALL IN.”
In the middle of a pandemic, and at a time when all of us have taken stock of what’s really important in our lives, my wife Mindy and I decided we still wanted to go on vacation like we do every summer.
Take that, COVID-19.
We wanted to do something fun and different. Of course, that meant following every guideline and taking every precaution. That meant being exceedingly careful and cautious.
It also meant getting on an airplane.
As we all deal with the global pandemic of the novel coronavirus that has dominated our lives for the past four months, regular parts of our routines have disappeared virtually overnight. Dinners out have been non-existent since mid-March. Run-of-the-mill trips to the grocery store are now fraught with nervousness. Putting gas in our cars requires extra care, because we have no idea who may have used the pump before we touched it.
Hand sanitizer is a necessity throughout the day as we all try to stay safe and healthy. The air travel industry, once a regular part of many people’s lives, has ground nearly to a halt with most companies ceasing non-essential travel for their employees. People doing all they can to minimize their risk of exposure, and the staggering numbers of people who have seen their careers dramatically financially impacted during the pandemic, have combined to sink leisure travel to record-low levels, as well.
So, my wife and I decided to take a long road trip, given the rare opportunity of having no live sports to cover and the return of the NBA, MLB and NHL scheduled for the end of July. The plan: We’d fly one way to California, then rent a car and drive back to Chicago from the west coast.
While we were nervous to make the trip, we did our best to protect ourselves by assembling our version of a COVID-19 protection kit, which included antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, rubber gloves (which we don’t normally use when we are not traveling) and a handful of masks. We also consulted with my brother Bruce, who is an eye surgeon, his wife Wendi, who is an internist, and a close friend who is the head of infectious diseases at a large Chicago-area hospital.
Professional teams and top-end college programs never fly commercial. They travel by charter, which should go a long way towards keeping players safer than the average person, who might find themselves on multiple planes and navigating through multiple airports during a trip. The NBA, as we all know, will be in a “bubble” of sorts in Orlando, but players are planning to travel to the campus by charter, thereby limiting their exposure to other passengers. The league and its teams will be handling travel from the airport to the Disney World bubble site with pre-screened drivers to minimize players’ exposure to strangers.
Now, keep in mind that I normally fly a lot throughout the year. Broadcasting college basketball games means I am on a plane almost every weekend of the season. Crowded airports and crowded planes are the norm. So when we arrived at the airport on Monday afternoon, we had no idea what to expect upon entering the terminal. While it felt significantly different to take this journey at this time, would it look different?
The first thing I noticed was that no curbside luggage check-in was available. That was no big deal, but as I looked around, it really was a ghost town. O’Hare in the middle of a workday has always been a scene of organized chaos, but this time there were very few people around. The security lines were short and everyone we saw was wearing a mask.
OK, the first concern we had (masks) was answered, and in a positive way.
Security was a breeze, and as we surveyed the scene, we couldn’t believe how clean the airport looked. I mean, incredibly clean. Nothing was out of place. Many of the more popular restaurants were closed, and the ones that were open had limited menus and everything — and I mean, everything — from plastic forks and knives to salt and pepper packets were either wrapped in plastic or unavailable to the public. If you chose to sit down for a meal (we did not), there was a complete lack of salt and pepper shakers on any of the tables, and every server was masked. Almost every store we walked past other than the convenience store in each terminal was closed.
There appeared to be good effort towards social distancing, and in the gate area people appeared to be wearing masks unless they were eating or drinking something. As they called for boarding for our United Airlines flight to Denver, Mindy and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, made sure our masks were on correctly and got ready to board. Planes are now not boarding by group number. Instead, it’s being done by small groups based on your assigned row. United did an excellent job of reminding passengers of the importance of social distancing during the boarding process, and there were several announcements about the mask requirement. In fact, United had made it clear to us on the phone a couple of days before our departure date that wearing a mask was a requirement to travel with them.
From there, the airline handed out antibacterial wipes to every passenger as they boarded to wipe down our seat, armrests, tray table and seat belts. We already had our own wipes with us, because we did not feel that one wipe was enough to fully clean all areas of our space. We also brought our own hand sanitizer to wash our hands after we wiped down our area. Flight attendants made numerous trips up and down the aisle to collect any garbage so that none of the used wipes accumulated anywhere.
My brother Bruce had previously advised us to wear safety goggles that protect the entire eye, because COVID-19 can enter the body through the eyes via respiratory droplets. We saw many people wearing sunglasses for the same reason, but as Dr. Bruce told us, sunglasses don’t protect the sides of your eyes — only the front. I took his advice and had gone to Home Depot the morning of our flight to purchase safety goggles, but was told they were close to sold out. Apparently, a lot of people beginning to brave air travel were wearing them for the same reason. So I hustled over to Aisle 17, scooped up two of three pairs left on the shelf like they were bricks of gold and headed to the checkout. A contactless checkout experience made me start to feel like we could actually pull this off.
The United Airlines flight held 138 seats. Ninety-six of them were taken, and most middle seats were empty, so we felt comfortable in our own small pseudo-bubble trying to stay safe. The plane was unusually quiet. People stayed in their seats and just a few got up to use the lavatories. We had brought our own snacks (we live a low-carb lifestyle, so we didn’t take the high-carb “snack pack” of chips and cookies that was offered to all passengers). The plane was incredibly clean. United did a wonderful job at managing a tough situation and we felt safe and secure that they had done all they could to protect everyone on board.
Yes, it was weird to be sitting on a plane in the middle of a pandemic wearing a mask, safety goggles and washing my hands multiple times during the flight. And people did keep to themselves much more than I’m used to based on the dozens of flights I have taken over the past couple of years. There wasn’t a lot of chit-chat. But when we landed, we felt that we had been able to keep ourselves from any compromising situation.
Now, I understand that is not enough to guarantee we don’t contract the virus, but if you are super vigilant about the situations you put yourself in, and take this very seriously, you can protect yourself to the best of your ability. From our experience, the airline did all it could to try and keep its passengers safe.
As our pilot announced we were preparing to land, he also reminded everyone to not attempt to deplane until the row in front of us had cleared at least six feet from us. People stayed orderly and waited their turn to gather their belongings from the overhead storage bin before deplaning. One additional change: Those that gate-checked a bag couldn’t deplane and had to remain seated until their bag was retrieved, brought to the jetway, and their name was called.
All in all, it was a solid experience, and we felt safe. Now, let’s hope it stays that way, so that when we look back on this trip, Mindy and I can truly say: Take That, COVID-19!